As part of the program Regional Initiative to Combat Disinformation, we present you a new analysis of fake news and disinformation narratives.
Russia is getting stronger, the West is getting weaker: The widespread narrative in the Serbian media
During July 2022, numerous influential media outlets in Serbia reported to their readers that Russia, contrary to expectations that it would begin to weaken under the pressure of Western sanctions, is actually getting stronger. Among the most popular narratives were those that Moscow is winning on the ground in Ukraine, successfully resisting sanctions and even becoming economically stronger due to the price of energy, while at the same time “winning” more and more non-Western countries of the world to its side.
These narratives have a special significance in Serbia, where even before the start of the war in Ukraine, public opinion was strongly pro-Russian. After the beginning of the Russian aggression, Serbia continued the policy of balancing between Russia and the West, officially condemning the attack, but refusing to comply with EU and US sanctions. The spread of the narrative about Russia’s increasingly strong position, it can be assumed, will further strengthen citizens’ beliefs that they should not side with the West.
Some of the most active media that spread this narrative were the pro-Russian portals Drugačije, Srbija Danas and Webtribune, which have a significant presence on social networks, primarily Facebook and Telegram. In addition to them, pro-government tabloids such as Informer, Alo and Objektiv also reported that Russia is in a good situation.
One of the ways in which this narrative was created, which is not new, is by taking texts from the world media, with incorrect interpretation or exaggeration of key conclusions. Thus, on July 7, the pro-government portal Informer reported the text of the British Telegraph, stating that “Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has time until the fall to turn the tide of the war or the West will leave him in the lurch”, after Russian military successes on the territory of Lugansk.
In the original text published by the Telegraph on July 5, the conclusion was that if Zelensky wants to end the war by Christmas, which he stated as his ambition to the Western allies, he must start to turn the situation in his favour by autumn. It was stated that this would dissuade “influential voices” in Western capitals who believe that support for Ukraine is “futile”, but nowhere was it stated that the West could “leave Ukraine in the lurch” from autumn, as exaggerated by the Informer. In this way, Russia’s strength was once again overemphasized.
Other pro-government tabloids also reported that Moscow is in a position of military supremacy in relation to Ukraine and the entire West. On July 26, Alo announced that “PUTIN IS SATISFIEDLY RUBBING HIS HANDS Ukraine is in a big problem; help from the West is in vain” because Ukraine has allegedly exhausted all ammunition stocks.
On July 10, Objektiv portal announced that the resignation of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the losses in the parliamentary elections of French President Emmanuel Macron and the scandal surrounding the distribution of narcotics at a gathering of the German ruling Social Democratic Party were the result of the actions of Russian intelligence services. The text was published in a positive tone towards Russia, presenting these “operations” as a result of its power.
Sanctions ineffective, Putin strikes back
In a similar way as the Informer transmitted the text of the British Telegraph, on July 6, the Webtribune portal transmitted an author’s text from the American portal The Hill about the limited effect of Western sanctions on the Russian economy. Although it was an opinion (op-ed) from which the media explicitly distanced itself, like other texts of that type, Webtribune quoted The Hill all the time, which created the impression of greater legitimacy and prevalence of the views expressed. Some sentences that were not in the original text were also added, for example “the Russian Federation only benefited from Western sanctions” due to the increased price of energy.
Webtribune published several more articles that categorically assessed that the sanctions aimed at Russia do not work and that Russia has an advantage in this field. One of those texts, originally published on the pro-Russian portal Pravda.rs, claimed that “Germany is anxiously awaiting the decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to cut off gas supplies to this country via the Nord Stream gas pipeline,” and that “Germany no longer has the means to pressure on Russia, while Moscow, on the contrary, has in its hands a whole series of sanctions war instruments with which it can inflict painful blows on the German and European economy”.
The narrative that the Russian economy is successfully resisting Western sanctions was also present in other media. Under the dramatic headline “Putin Begins Phase Two: Russia Will Shake Up the World’s Financial System,” Webtribune reported on July 17 that “Russia is aiming to eliminate the need for the SWIFT global banking system” and that “the entire world has been held hostage by the Western financial system, because everyone is used to it, it suited us all”. It was about the statement of Maksim Oreshkin, adviser to President Vladimir Putin.
On July 17, the Srbija Danas portal also transmitted the text of a foreign media outlet, in this case the American Bloomberg, about assessments of the worst-case scenario regarding Russian oil. Although the text was conveyed in a neutral tone, the title was designed with the intention to contribute to the narrative of Russia’s strength: “PUTIN IS PREPARING A “COUNTER STRIKE” TO THE WEST?! America in fear: If Russia pulls this off, the price of oil will skyrocket!”
Changing the titles of the analyzes in such a way as to convey an exaggerated message to readers is a frequent occurrence in pro-Russian media. The same media, Srbija Danas, two days later translated almost entirely the analysis published on the website of the British Guardian, which presented the political challenges of leaders in Europe and linked them to the rising cost of living, among other things due to dependence on Russian energy sources. The headline, however, was completely out of proportion to the moderate tone of the article, which also stated that Vladimir Putin does not want to take risks when it comes to gas. It read: “PUTIN CELEBRATES A BIG VICTORY TOMORROW?! Western leaders fall one after the other, general chaos shakes Europe!”
Russia is gaining new allies?
One of the narratives about the strengthening of Russia that was particularly noticeable during July was that, in contrast to the international isolation that the West is trying to place it in, Russia is gaining new allies, while cracks are increasingly appearing in the alliance relations of the West itself. None of the texts published on this topic “revealed” much new information, nor were any formal steps towards an alliance between Russia and other states really made. The headlines and texts, however, gave the impression that a much more serious “realignment” was involved.
On July 3, the Drugačije portal reported that Putin insisted on the unification of Russia and Belarus, which “trembles the West.” “The possible integration of the two countries worries the Western allies, among other things, because of the increasingly frequent use of nuclear weapons.” Putin also announced last week that Russia would send missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to its ally, and at the beginning of the year, Belarus changed its constitution and removed from it an article stating that the country would never acquire nuclear weapons…” is stated in this text.
Nine days later, the same medium published the following headline: “Russia gets a NEW ally, America in fear – They are entering the war too?” The information was that Iran would soon send hundreds of drones, including armed ones, as stated by the American National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
However, Russia’s cooperation with Belarus and Iran was not a new thing. Allegedly a much more important event was the behavior of Saudi Arabia, as reported by Webtribune. A tense meeting with the leadership of Saudi Arabia on July 15 is a good sign for Moscow, according to Webtribune’s assessment of Russian analyst Dmitry Zhuravlyov. According to him, “Riyadh refused to move against Moscow and support the US plan to destroy Russia economically.” He assessed that Russia and Saudi Arabia currently have “quite nice” relations.
The same medium, a few days earlier, published a dramatic headline: “A turn in the world order: New enlargement – three more countries want to join BRICS?” This text reported the statement of the president of BRICS, Purnima Anand, to the Russian newspaper Izvesya. Anand said Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia want to join the group, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Anand stated that a decision on the admission of some of the countries could be made during the organization’s next summit in 2023.
The entry of these three countries into BRICS, an international association of emerging economies whose loose organization has so far prevented a significant joint influence on the global stage, has not been officially confirmed.
On the other hand, while BRICS is expanding, NATO is on the verge of collapse. That, at least, was the interpretation of Yakov Kedmi, one of the commentators close to the Kremlin whose comments often appear in the Serbian media. On July 7, Drugačije.com reported his statement that the North Atlantic Alliance should disappear because of its uselessness, and that “as a military power, it (NATO) represents nothing.”
He added that “it is completely pointless for Washington to develop and finance serious NATO military bases, for example, in Norway or Finland, because those European bases will still not be able to protect Washington, New York or Los Angeles from a Russian attack.”
The situation in Ukraine is undoubtedly changeable, as is the case with international economic and political relations. However, readers in Serbia who follow only the media cited in this text get a black-and-white picture of the strength of Russia and the weakness of the West, with significant implications for public opinion and internal politics.